The Cornered Cat

Probably the most tragic sentence in the English language is, “I didn’t know it was loaded!” Said with a sigh, a shriek, or a wail, these are words that follow a mishap … or a tragedy. These are words that no sane person ever wants to hear coming out of her own mouth.

Even if you are not a gun owner yourself, chances are that you know someone who owns guns. Maybe you’re married to a “gun nut,” or are dating one, and are just not sure if you want to know anything at all about his odd hobbies. Or maybe you’re just exploring the entire idea of gun ownership to see if it is right for you. Whether or not you own guns yourself, you should know that because there are so many firearms owners out there, it is possible that at some time in your life you will stumble across an unfamiliar firearm when no other responsible adult is around to take care of it.

Maybe it will happen when you are cleaning out the attic of an old house, or moving into the closets of a new one. Maybe your roommate or boyfriend will leave a gun lying on the kitchen table where others could get it (I hope not!). If this ever happens to you, you should know what to do about it.

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Situation One: You find a gun in your attic. You think it probably belonged to your recently deceased grandfather. You’ve never seen it before, and you don’t even know if it’s loaded. You certainly don’t know what you’re going to do with it! Now what?

The first rule of firearms safety is, “All guns are always loaded.” Never, ever assume that a found gun is unloaded — no matter how old it is or how exotic it appears. Because you’re going to assume the firearm is loaded, it follows that you’ll need to treat it with all the respect you’d give it if you knew for sure it was ready to fire. You will keep it pointed in a safe direction, never allowing the muzzle end to point at anything or anyone you aren’t willing to shoot. Of course, you’ll also keep your finger off the trigger when you handle it.

But do you need to pick this firearm up at all? Maybe not. If you truly know nothing at all about firearms, it may be safest to leave the firearm just where it is for now. After all, presumably no one has disturbed it for several years, so another day or two will not make any realistic difference. You could simply leave the firearm right where it is until you figure out what you want to do about it.

For help figuring out what to do next — whether to try unloading the firearm yourself, or to risk transporting it while loaded — pick up the yellow pages and call a local shooting range or gun store, or a gunsmith, or an NRA-certified firearms instructor, or (if you believe the firearm might be a war relic) even a nearby military museum. Firearms people are generally very friendly in circumstances like this, and it should not be too difficult to locate someone who recognizes the type of firearm you’re dealing with, and is willing to walk you through the steps to making it safe. You might even find someone willing to come over and unload the firearm for you, appraising it at the same time.

If the gun rightly belongs to you, through inheritance, it is a really good idea to get it professionally appraised — by someone who will not be the one purchasing it — before you decide how to dispose of it. It may be far more valuable than you realize. If you live in a high-control state, it may be legally difficult to handle unless you first know exactly what it is you’re looking at. An appraisal can help you deal with either situation. If you do decide to get rid of the firearm, please remember that there are many museums out there which would be glad to take an older firearm and preserve it for people to study and learn from. An unwanted firearm does not have to be destroyed in order to be kept safely away from criminals.

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Situation Two: You find a gun in your home that belongs to your spouse or significant other. Or you come across a firearm in someone else’s home while they are not there (you are housesitting or babysitting).

What do you do?

First, don’t panic. Guns do not “go off” by themselves. As long as no one is touching the gun, whether it is loaded or not is really nothing to worry about. It is just an object. It may be a scary object, but it is only an object. It cannot do anything dangerous on its own. 1

Now it is time to think about your options. If no one else is around, or likely to be around, you may want to simply leave the gun lying where it is. Leaving the gun alone is probably the best choice you can make, as long as no one else is around.

Simply leaving the gun alone is not a secure choice if there is no way to lock the room behind you when you leave so that criminals cannot get to the gun, and it’s not a safe choice if there are people around who know even less about firearms than you do. And it is especially not safe if there are children around who may be fascinated by the sight of an unsecured firearm.

So it may be necessary to pick up the gun and put it somewhere else.

Where will you put it? That depends upon where you are and what the circumstances are. If you are in a private home, for instance, you may want to simply carry the firearm to the bathroom, place it carefully on the counter, and lock the bathroom door behind you as you leave the room. That will keep it relatively secure from children and the clueless until the owner returns to retrieve it (though he may not thank you for making it necessary to pick the lock on the bathroom door).

By the way, the “lock it in the bathroom” plan was the one my teenagers and I developed when they were old enough to begin babysitting for other people. Because there are so many different types of firearms out there, I did not want them trying to unload unfamiliar firearms if they or their young charges came across one. So we came up with this simple plan which would work with any firearm, and which would allow them to keep their young charges safe until the parents returned.

Of course, when you pick the gun up you must not assume the gun is unloaded.


  1. If someone else is already handling the gun in ways you consider unsafe, leave the area. Do not argue with the person. Do not stick around to see whether they improve. Do not walk past them to retrieve your belongings. Just get your precious and irreplaceable body out of the area as quietly and as quickly as you are able.